What is "burden of proof"?

For example, in the realm of special education law, IDEA plus the body of existing decisions say that a student is IDEA-eligible when his disability has an adverse effect on his educational performance.

In my state, New York, when a special education hearing is requested on behalf of a student, claiming that the district failed in its "child find" mission, and that when it did get around to evaluating the student, incorrectly found him ineligible, the district has the burden of proof. But I'm not sure what that means.

Does that mean that it is up to the district to offer evidence that the student's disability did NOT adversely affect his educational performance? Does it mean that we should assume that it did (kind of like assuming that someone is innocent of a crime until proven guilty), until the district presents evidence that will provide reassurance, showing that there was no adverse effect on performance?


For the record, the requirement says:

The board of education or trustees of the school district or the state agency responsible for providing education to students with disabilities shall have the burden of proof, including the burden of persuasion and burden of production, in any such impartial hearing, except that a parent or person in parental relation seeking tuition reimbursement for a unilateral parental placement shall have the burden of persuasion and burden of production on the appropriateness of such placement.

To understand "burden of proof", think in terms of what claim is being made, by whom: this is different from understanding what you want to happen. To get the outcome you want, you have to make the right claims. Assume that the law requires the school to accommodate a student's learning disability, then the plaintiff (parent) would claim that the school failed to accommodate. The school would then be required to prove that they did accommodate. In other words, all you have to do (initially) is allege a failure to follow the law, and it is up to the school to provide the evidence that your allegation is incorrect (by providing records, also indicating standards that students are held to; the presumption that the panel is supposed to adopt is that the plaintiff's allegation is true, unless facts are introduced that show that it is false).

It's not clear what action of the school is alleged to be at variance with the law. It sounds like a simple correctable bureaucratic error, so a hearing should not be necessary, but that doesn't mean that one isn't (e.g. if they have a policy of not admitting to making mistakes).

  • No, it wasn't a simple bureaucratic error. The "I gave him an incomplete" appeared out of nowhere, nine months after the fact. The report card at the time did not show an incomplete. – aparente001 Dec 26 '16 at 0:38

The burden of proof refers to what is known in computer science as a "default condition" (its opposite, actually).

The "default condition" is that the parent's claim that the child was is entitled to IDEA or was improperly evaluated is presumed to be true. Then the "burden of proof" is on the education department to show that the child was not improperly evaluated or improperly denied IDEA.

There are several levels of "burden of proof." "Preponderance of evidence" is a 50-50 proposition; whoever comes up with 51% wins. "Weight of the evidence" or "clear and convincing" evidence means that one side has a high burden of proof, what I call 75% standard. "Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" is a very high burden of proof on the prosecution; we'd rather let 99 guilty people go free than convict (and imprison) an innocent one.

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